FEMA has long led disaster response from Denton base
When it first arrived in Denton, it was known as the Federal Civil Defense Agency.
It started small, with a few employees in a building on the campus of Texas Woman’s University while the massive underground compound was being built for what is now the Federal Emergency Management Agency regional center.
Today, the sprawling FEMA center has guided Texas and the region through tornadoes, hurricanes, explosions, fires, floods and other disasters, including the Challenger explosion in 1986, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the tornado that struck downtown Fort Worth in 2000 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Roy Appleton, who was the chairman of the Denton Chamber of Commerce’s economic development committee at the time local leaders were making the pitch to bring the facility to Denton, said it’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years.
“It brought in quite a few people, which was great,” Appleton said recently. “That’s what we were trying to do at that time, increase the population and economic development. That fit right in.”
FEMA will be celebrating its 50 years in Denton County with a celebration Friday morning at the Federal Regional Center with local leaders and agency officials past and present.
It’s an invitation-only event with special security befitting the agency that has moved from worries about nuclear war to emergency management for Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and 68 American Indian tribal nations.
Closing the deal
Appleton and other local leaders, including Bill Utter, worked for six months to convince the government that the facility should be in Denton.
Barbara Tomes, Utter’s daughter, remembered her father heading a campaign to raise $25,000 to buy a parcel of land out on Loop 288.
It took phone calls from then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, House Speaker Sam Rayburn and other prominent Texans to cement the deal.
Welcome Wilson, who at the time was the five-state director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization and was a key figure in bringing the facility to Denton, recalled having to jump through a few political hoops to get things done.
Wilson, now a Houston-area real estate developer, said all seven regional directors were put into a competition to see who would get the new national headquarters in their area.
While at a conference in Washington, the agency’s national director, Leo A. Hoegh, told Wilson that the facility would go to Denton if Wilson could get Rayburn, Johnson and Congressman Albert Thomas to call Hoegh in the next 60 minutes.
Wilson said it wasn’t ego or political posturing that motivated Hoegh to want the calls made to him.
“The reason for the calling, he was convinced Congress would not appropriate the money,” Wilson said. “He felt like if he got [Rayburn, LBJ and Thomas] to call him and say they supported it, he could get the money to build it. So I got on the phone. I knew Thomas very well. He was the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on independent offices. All the appropriations for civil and defense mobilization started with Thomas.”
A few calls later to the offices of LBJ and a Denton congressman who, at that time, had a connection to Rayburn, and Wilson had scored a win for Denton.
It was to be a secondary location for the government to use for operations if the primary location, in High Point, N.C., came under attack.
Tomes, who will be making some remarks in honor of her father at the celebration Friday, noted that the facility came in over budget, but President John F. Kennedy signed off on it and said to go ahead with it.
“It’s sad that he was [gone] before it opened,” she said.
A changing mission
As the years have gone by, the world’s political environment has changed and so has the mission of the facility.
Dale Hoff, a natural hazards program specialist at the center, recalled that when he got to the agency in 1983, it was a buttoned-up, underground building braced against a nuclear attack.
“Now, within the past 10 years, we abandoned the generators, the engines, the water well ... pulled the diesel out from under the parking lot. ... The kitchen has been totally ripped out and remolded,” he said. “This is not the building it was built to do, but it still serves us very well. We’re not going to button up anymore, and I am not sure we could if we wanted to. That’s not the intent.”
Hoff said Region 6 has done one thing better than the other FEMA regions.
“And I know we’re not supposed to compare, [but] after all these years of attending disasters all over the country, I really feel our region is one of the best in actually assisting the state to do their job,” he said. “It wasn’t, ‘Move over.’ It was, ‘What do you need?’ and ‘How can we help?’”
Even if the Cold War setup is mostly gone from the facility, the 13-ton blast doors remain in the 50,000-square-foot facility, which still sits 58 feet underground.
Current Regional Administrator Tony Robinson said he recalls when the first IBM PS/2 computers were installed at the facility, and he says the agency has continued to evolve.
“While we know our natural disaster threats, there are manmade threats that continue to evolve today,” he said. “We’re working better with state partners to identify those threats as well.”
Looking at the future of the agency, Robinson said FEMA will continue to focus on assisting survivors in the communities who need help the most.
“We have to ensure for generations to follow that that is our main point,” he said. “[And] preparedness as a nation and how we get better prepared — in our schools, in our communities — that individuals are prepared to not only help themselves, but their neighbor. We made tremendous strides over the last several years, [and I] still think it’s something we can continue to work on.”
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.